A lot of buzz across all industries currently focuses on the idea of regeneration. With a tourism lens, regeneration means that the act and presence of travel has a positive impact. In contrast, sustainable tourism is the idea that tourism leaves a destination in a constant state, causing no additional damage.
That travel can be regenerative is an ideal worth striving for. Yet, in the rush to get on the regenerative tourism bandwagon, there’s been a backlash on sustainability. Increasingly, there are debates on sustainable tourism versus regenerative tourism, as if the two are in competition or not aligned with each other. Additionally, by getting bogged down in the terminology, there seems to be this idea that those working in tourism should be creating products and services that fit nicely in the “regeneration” box.
Sustainability vs Regeneration: The Misguided Debate
While I do believe there is value in focusing on positive impacts over no or negative impacts, the whole debate is terribly misguided. One of the key reasons is because regeneration, by its very nature, is not about creating more but rather integrating with what already exists. In addition, by flinging aside the actual term “sustainability” en route to embracing regeneration, the tourism industry further isolates itself from other industries striving to reach the global and intersectional Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as defined by the United Nations.
Presumably, those working in the tourism industry are eager to build an industry framework that is safer, more equitable, more environmentally aware, and more focused on local communities. That framework is also what defines the SDGs. Emphasizing regenerative practices in any industry, including tourism, is a meaningful way to advance the global SDGs. But pitting sustainability against regeneration isn’t doing the tourism industry any good. In fact, it keeps the industry in a silo, working alongside sustainable development goals in any given community instead of leaning into its capacity to add value to what already exists.
Breaking Out of the Tourism Silo
I recently had a conversation with someone about the connection between tourism and the SDGs. She was so focused on tourism-specific initiatives that she failed to see the opportunity to highlight and showcase non-tourism-specific social impact initiatives in the tourism context. This is, unfortunately, very common both within and beyond the tourism industry.
If the tourism industry wants to embrace regeneration, it must stop working in a silo. Tourism can’t be something separate from what is or what exists. The industry needs to work with existing environmental and socio-cultural social impact initiatives already in place and driven by locals to truly be sustainable and, ultimately, regenerative.
Tourism can not be separate from the destinations where people travel and the locals who live there. Working in a silo undermines local efforts, needs, and expectations. Working in a silo also means there is a huge lost opportunity to empower local knowledge, better connect travelers to universal issues on a personal level, and help travelers take meaningful action in their own lives.
Tourism + Storytelling + Social Impact: The Powerful Trifecta
In my work, I talk a lot about how tourism can use storytelling to promote and amplify local, solutions-focused social impact initiatives. One of the reasons I emphasize this is because, if tourism is to be community-focused, then it needs to take a more active role in supporting what already exists at the community level to support sustainable development — adding value to these destinations.
How can tourism do this?
- Introducing travelers to a destination’s challenges, such as water scarcity or wildlife trafficking.
- Making travelers aware of locally focused grassroots solutions that address these global challenges. These are solutions advancing the SDGs.
- Helping travelers connect their own lives to these challenges and solutions through storytelling. This requires intentionally engaging with social impact changemakers and initiatives.
- Supporting these initiatives. Destinations and tour companies should use their platforms and reach to amplify them.
- Encouraging travelers to support these initiatives in turn. This can be done financially, such as through a fee included in a trip or with an on-the-ground donation or purchase. Travelers can also do this by responsibly amplifying their experience through storytelling to their own followers, friends, and family.
- Helping travelers understand how they can make changes in their own lives as a result of this experience. For example, they can support similar initiatives in their own communities or create new, more responsible habits to address this global challenge.
The goal here is to use storytelling to help travelers connect their “at-home” life with their “traveling” life in a way that surfaces global challenges we all face as well as local, destination-focused solutions to these challenges.
There should not be tourism and the SDGs. There should be tourism integrated within the SDGs. The travel experience is a vehicle for supporting community-focused and community-led initiatives and solutions. In this way, tourism supports sustainable development and the SDGs in the destinations where it operates. It is a partner for sustainability.
This, in turn, leaves a destination better because of tourism, but this is because tourism adds value to what already exists. It doesn’t create something new and “regenerative.” By leaning into the SDGs with a cross-industry and global focus, the tourism industry supports regeneration. Ultimately, regeneration becomes the backbone for sustainable development.
An Example: Waste Management in Nigeria
I recently read an article about six social initiatives in Nigeria addressing the waste issue. Though tourism isn’t mentioned in this article at all, it offers a great example for how travel can be intentionally interwoven into a destination’s sustainability goals. In fact, it’s because tourism isn’t mentioned in this article that this makes for an ideal example.
First, introduce travelers to a destination’s challenges, in this case excessive garbage and waste. Travelers will see this in front of their eyes in their destination, but it’s not a local problem. As noted in the article, the Global Material Footprint in 2019 was 85.9 billion tons. This is an entry point into helping travelers connect their vacation destination with their own lives.
Next, don’t stop at the problem. What are the local solutions in Nigeria? This article outlines six changemakers who have created solutions: four artists (most of whom have studios) who use scrap metal, tires, used cloth, and other waste materials; a weaver creating bags, purses, slippers, and other items from nylon sachets that she sells; and a local who makes play equipment for schools out of waste.
Now, how can tourism be interwoven into this scenario? Destination representatives — on the national, regional, and city levels — can amplify this work. This can be done by creating relationships between the tourism representatives and these changemakers. Then, share the waste challenge story with travelers and make them aware of the studio and shop locations through marketing materials (such as on the tourism website and through social media). Make mention of the playgrounds where waste products are used. Create a self-guided walking tour of waste solutions or put these sites and shops together under a themed topic promoted by the tourism board.
Tour companies can incorporate these initiatives into their offerings. But beyond just “stopping by” one of these businesses, turn this into a conversation. Engage travelers in the topic. What is being done in their home countries to manage waste? What can they do while they are visiting Nigeria to curb their waste production? What can they do when they return home to mitigate waste creation? You’ve already established this isn’t a Nigeria-specific problem. So, what can travelers do to address this challenge now? How can they support these local initiatives, share this story with others, and continue taking action once they return home?
The six initiatives in this article were not created for travelers, but they can be supported through tourism. Doing so supports local sustainable development and the global SDGs. In turn, this means that tourism is actually having a positive impact on the destination — it fulfills the industry’s goal of embracing regeneration.